The Philippines: The last frontier of Southeast Asia
Written by Alex
Southeast Asia Specialist
Discover Southeast Asia's best-kept secret before it gets out. The sprawling Philippines archipelago is full of astonishing sights, bountiful beaches, vibrant culture clashes and warm locals…
During my travels around mainland Southeast Asia, I found that many of the countries – Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia – all have some commonalities in terms of culture, religion and history. Despite this, I wasn’t really sure what to expect from the Philippines. I knew there would be a vibrant collision of cultural influences (Chinese, Spanish and American) and a different predominant belief system, and I wondered whether it would still feel like Southeast Asia. I was delighted then to get the opportunity to find out first hand.
The Philippines were one of the first populations established during the Austronesian Migration; starting out from Taiwan by boat, it reached as far as Hawaii to the east and Madagascar to the west, while populating southern Southeast Asia (Indonesia, Borneo and Malaysia) en route. If you’re interested in this remarkable human journey, a visit to the Ayala Museum in Manila’s Makati district is a must. It has some very well put together exhibitions and the top floor has a display of pre-Hispanic gold, while the second floor has fascinating dioramas explaining the history of the Philippines.
The 7,641 islands of the Philippines offer incredible scenic variety and contrast, from the Shetland-like hills of the Batanes, to the rice terraces and pine-clad mountains of northern Luzon and the tropical beaches of Palawan and the Visayas. Better yet, only 2,000 of the islands are actually inhabited.
The capital Manila has a good deal to offer. The attractive architecture and history of Intramuros, the walled Spanish Old Manila, boasts pretty gardens and areas specifically for pedestrians. A boat trip to the nearby island of Corregidor will be of great interest to war aficionados, known for the 1942 battle that was the culmination of the Japanese campaign for the conquest of the Commonwealth of the Philippines during World War II. The wider city is huge, divided into 16 municipalities. There are some great museums, restaurants and delicious street food stalls to enjoy.
Situated just three hours from Manila, Taal has some incredible heritage buildings and gave me a real sense of stepping back in time.
One of my most memorable experiences was getting my hair and beard cut in a local barbershop in Manila. I was just about to get on a plane to the a private island resort, Amanpulo, and thought I should smarten up. My barber Bert, whose hair was styled in a 1950s quiff, took more care in the job than I have ever received in the UK, taking a full 45 minutes, and he only wanted 100 Pesos for the work.
Taal is a town situated just three hours from Manila. It has some incredible heritage buildings and I got a real sense of stepping back in time when I arrived here. On a day tour I experienced a great deal of variety, including Spanish colonial houses, the most incredible collection of cameras I have ever come across (at Galleria Taal museum), and a workshop from where the iconic fan-knives used in martial arts originate. Plus, nearby is the smallest active volcano in the world (Taal Volcano), sitting in a huge caldera.
Moving further north, the rice terraces near Banaue in Luzon, involved perhaps the best single day tour I have ever done anywhere, and well worth every minute of the journey from Manila: (a one-hour flight and three hours’ drive). The scale and majesty of the already awesome natural landscape molded over millennia by man, has a huge dramatic impact, and the tribal history and techniques employed are fascinating.
My next stop was the Batanes, which are the archipelago’s northernmost set of islands (well on the way to Taiwan, in fact). Spread over three islands, the area doesn't receive many visitors and supports the smallest community in the whole of the Philippines.
The local Ivatan people are well used to hardship, having endured the many typhoons that batter their islands. They have an amazing community spirit and all club together when fixing houses or farming. Their roofs are made of the Filipino cogon grass, bound into incredibly strong structures. Fundacion Pacita Nature Lodge is an appealing boutique hotel on the island. It also encompasses the spirit of the local community and supports the education of the Ivatan youth. Development on the islands is restricted to the local people, which will hopefully preserve this fascinating culture. This is one of the most off-the-beaten-path areas I witnessed in the Philippines and it felt incredibly special.
I ended my trip exploring some of the Philippines’ most renowned assets – its beaches. Found in the Visayas region of the archipelago, Bohol offers white sands, world-class diving, and the endemic tarsier – a charming, little creature. It’s a lovely spot to unwind on the beach after days spent exploring, with plenty of other attractions to keep you stimulated. The luxury private island resort, Amanpulo, northeast of Palawan, is located on a tiny island, and can be walked around in an hour. The beaches here are stunning, and after paddling to about in the crystal-clear water, I spent a full half an hour observing a green turtle (there are tons of them here). He seemed perfectly content with me swimming nearby.
After paddling into the crystal-clear water, I spent a full half an hour observing a green turtle. He seemed perfectly content with me swimming nearby.
The Philippines has a fairly developed infrastructure — although I wouldn’t want to be an electrical engineer there! There are a staggering range of cultural experiences and activities, plus some of the best beaches in the world. Because almost everyone speaks a reasonable level of English, there are more opportunities to have the sort of warm local interactions that form such an integral part of travel.
But just as importantly, its sprawling setting means parts of the archipelago still see far fewer visitors than other Southeast Asian countries. As a result, many areas of the country have an untouched feel to them, giving visitors the pleasing glow that comes with finding an undiscovered gem. I might not have known what to expect when I arrived in the Philippines, but what I found will last in my memory for a lifetime.
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